|The Women in Black / Madeleine St John|
NY: Scribner, 2020, c1993.
It's set in Sydney, Australia in the summer of 1959; young Lesley (who changes her name to the more fashionable and feminine Lisa) gets a temporary job helping out at Goode's Department store in the weeks before Christmas, while waiting for her test results to see if she'll be able to go to university. She ends up in Ladies' Cocktail Frocks, mainly, with Mrs. Patty Williams and Miss Fay Baines as her fellow saleswomen; Miss Jones is their alterationist; and Magda is the glamorous Continental refugee who runs the inner sanctum, Model Gowns. But they all wear a uniform: black dresses.
All these women (well, except perhaps Miss Jones) have their own lives that are slowly expanded upon in the short chapters that follow. And they begin to cross over into one another's lives, too, once Magda takes an interest in Lisa. Most of the story revolves around romance in one way or another, but it's utterly charming -- full of female relationships, and of course frocks. Oh, those dresses!
The writing is exquisite: it's clever and quick, with wonderful characterizations and settings. Goode's Department Store is a great canvas for this story. It opens 6 weeks before Christmas, and is full of details of the retail setting and the chaos of big sales. I do love store novels!
I loved this book. It's a fairy tale in which all goes well and everyone ends up happy, but it isn't saccharine. There are jabs, there are clear-eyed observations of the characters, and there is a lot of witty humour. And there are really some lovely bits. One of the highlights for me was when the mysterious Miss Jones speaks to Lisa near the end, after everyone has heard that she has aced her leaving exams and will be heading to university. She says:
"Well, it's no surprise to me at all. I don't expect it's a surprise to you either. You're a clever girl, I could see that... A clever girl is the most wonderful thing in all Creation you know; you must never forget that. People expect men to be clever. They expect girls to be stupid or at least silly, which very few girls really are, but most girls oblige them by acting like it. So you just go away and be as clever as ever you can; put their noses out of joint for them. It's the best thing you could possibly do, you and all the clever girls in this city and the world."If you love clever stories about clever girls, and beautiful dresses, and women and men together, pick this one up as soon as you can. What a delight.
There is apparently also a movie that has been made by Bruce Beresford, a friend of the author's. I haven't seen it since the only place it seems to be available now is Amazon Prime which I don't have. But if you do, check it out! Here is the delightful trailer.
From your description it sounds like it might be a bit like a Barbara Pym novel (but in a shop). Is it?ReplyDelete
Mmm, there is a hint of it in the way that it cleverly tells a story of women's lives, with a bit of sharp writing too. But there isn't that edge of middle-aged disappointment that underlies much of Pym; this book has a hopeful and light tone that permeates it, and so feels quite different.Delete
Not like Barbara Pym at all. As a student I worked in the shop Goodes is modelled on and the book is very true to how it was then. It's a fun book and the film is great too.ReplyDelete
Ah, you were like Lisa! :) Thanks for commenting, it's very interesting to hear that the story is very true to life in its way. It is such a fun read!Delete
Looks fun- but I do HATE suck loooong trailers that give away 90% of the plot. I swear they never used to, now, when you see a film there are few surprises! The costumes look good.ReplyDelete
True -- I should have mentioned that you should read the book before watching even the trailer. I hope you'll still enjoy the book when you get to it! I wish I could see the film to see how it matches up, and yes, for a look at those costumes.Delete
Ooh, thanks for the movie recommendation -- always game for a good 'costume' drama!ReplyDelete
The book is so uplifting, I hope the movie carries that feeling over!Delete
I haven't read the book but did enjoy seeing the movie a few years ago. It has lovely costumes and a quaint 1950's vibe set in Sydney, Australia.ReplyDelete
Thanks for continuing to blog. I always enjoy seeing your makes and your book recommendations. Best Wishes from 🇦🇺
Thank you! I'm glad you enjoy them. I'm still trying to find a way to see the movie as I love this book and the trailer looks delightful :)Delete
This was a fabulous film, particularly if you like clothes. But it is also an interesting reflection of the times in Australia. I haven't read the book, but probably should. Do see the film if you can.ReplyDelete
Excellent, I will make an effort to find it. Good to know it really is fabulous!Delete